If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.
Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.
The sixth set of stories cover the sin of Pride. This is the offering by Perry Broxson.
Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Perry is writing a novella linking all of the seven sins, but breaking each sin up into semi-stand-alone offerings. Because of this, he asked that I include this prologue/synopsis to set up the story:
The Brothers Proffit
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(12,250 words – approx. reading time: about 46 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Above the amphitheater, looking down, Ralph could not help but think of ants. Quickly, he dismissed the comparison. The Siafu ants that had shredded his flesh in the Congo were hive-minded, singular in their mission. The ant-people below him – the mob that had witnessed the assassination of their cult leader, Hoss Proffit – were disjointed and disparate and dangerous, allied only in their confusion.
He’d have to leave soon, Ralph calculated, vacate the sky. Helicopters would be churning the airspace, reporting the news from their Eye in the Sky. He considered his decision to go full angel-mode in front of twenty-thousand people, not to mention the news crews covering the rally. He determined that it was reckless but necessary. It was also an epic fail. He’d missed Envy – the snake-faced man called Baby Dwayne Proffit, brother and murderer of Hoss Proffit. And once the stage had been stormed, there was no recourse to pursue Envy through the trapdoor. He’d hoped his twelve-thousand feet overview would give him some much needed intel, but that too was a bust.
Ralph circled the sky like a man pacing, restless and unsettled, trying to devise a plan. Time was ticking. It would be May 32nd in four days. He had to Capture and Cage three Cardinals in order to save Mirabelle . . . and, by the way, every living creature on planet earth.
He stopped, stood on a cloud, and raised his finger. “Virginia,” he said to the sky. “I’ll go back to Virginia’s apartment and . . . and . . . and.” He couldn’t finish the thought, but something about the half-baked idea seemed right. He flew to her – flew fast despite his uncertainty.
“No,” Virginia shouted through the intercom, “I am not interested in accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Scram!”
“V,” he said, “it’s me, Ralph.”
She laughed. “I thought you were one of those goddamn Mormon boys. They’ve been pestering me for months.” There was a long pause. “Come to think of it, I’d rather listen to their malarkey about gold plates and angels than listen to your bullshit, Ralph Chamberlain.”
“I deserve that,” he said.
“Damn right you deserve that,” she said. “You walked out – didn’t say bye or kiss my fanny. Just walked the fuck out.”
“Can we do this inside?” he asked, pressing the gray button.
There was another long pause. Finally, after a full minute, the door that led to the elevators clicked. She had deactivated the latch.
“Thank you,” he said, hoping he could find more words when he reached room 666.
Her door was cracked so he walked right in. There was a half-bottle of Tito’s Vodka and an empty ice cream carton. She was on the couch in a cotton robe, hair disheveled, eyes red from crying. She stared at the TV, aggressively ignoring him.
“Virginia, I’m sorry,” he started, but was cut off by her shush finger.
“You’re always sorry,” she said. “All men are always sorry, all the time, for all the things. I’m fifty-two years old, Ralph. You’re not the first man to fuck and run.”
“Virginia,” he said.
“It’s just that I thought . . . stupid me . . . I thought you were different.”
“I am different,” he said.
She dabbed her mascara with a tissue. “You’re no different. You’re just like every other stupid man on this stupid planet. You’re a dog. After one thing, and one thing only.”
Ralph expanded his wings fully, exposing his angelic form. He radiated a whiteness, an aura so bright that she had to shield her bleary eyes.
“I’m different,” he insisted.
She peeked between her fingers. Her mouth and eyes were wide open as she clutched a throw pillow. “This isn’t real. Am I drunk? Am I dead? Did I overdose on vodka? Who are you? Where’s Ralph?”
“It’s me, Ralph. I am different,” he repeated. “I’m an angel, Virginia. I’m Raphael, Order of the Ark Angels, sent to capture . . . bad guys.”
“Bad guys?” she asked, pointing to herself. “Me?”
“No,” he laughed. He pointed to the TV. Together, they watched breathless reporters spew the gruesome news of Hoss Proffit’s assassination on CNN.
“Him?” she asked. “Did you kill Hoss Proffit? Did you kill the bad guy?”
“No,” Ralph said, shaking his head. “His brother did.”
“Yes, his twin brother. Baby Dwayne. He’s the bad guy . . . my bad guy. One of them, anyway.”
She stood and tentatively touched his wing. “This can’t be real,” she said.
He wrapped his wings around her and kissed her. “This is real,” he assured. Instinctually, he knew that if he wrapped her in his wings, she would believe. And she did.
He felt her melting, yielding, surrendering. He hated himself for his magical, Machiavellian ploy, but everything hinged upon his ability to recruit her to his cause. “I need your help,” he said plainly. “I need you to call the Proffit campaign headquarters and offer your stellar cosmetic artistry.”
“For Hoss Proffit. The late Hoss Proffit.”
“You mean,” she said, her face pulled in disgust, “do a dead guy’s makeup?”
“Yes, I’m certain they’ll have an open casket funeral. He was a proud man – vainglorious and proud. Tell his handlers that you are a big fan, and that you will offer your services gratis.”
She pushed away from him. “They blurred it out on TV, Ralph, but I saw what happened. Somebody blew Hoss’ brains out. There’s not enough concealer, caulk, or Bondo putty in California to cover up that kind of . . . of . . . blemish.”
Ralph picked up her phone and handed it to her. “You’re good with this thing. Please, find the number to Proffit Headquarters; find someone in charge, and convince them that you and you only can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
“What if I can’t?” she asked, mortified.
He wasn’t sure which can’t she meant: get the job or do the job. In the end, however, it didn’t matter. “If you can’t,” he shrugged, “it’s just the end of the world.”
“Not funny,” she said.
“No, it’s not . . . not at all.” He then slipped the ark amulet necklace over his head and handed it to Virginia. “Keep this for me, please. I’ll be back to collect it. Promise you will keep it with you at all times.”
“I don’t understand” –
He cleared his throat, careful of his words. “They won’t let me have this . . . where I’m going. I need you to hold it. Keep it safe.”
She wanted to decrypt his sentences, decode his intentions; but in the end, she only nodded.
He took it back from her and looped it over her head. “Wear it at all times, Virginia. Even in the shower. I’ll be back for it. Will you do that for me?”
“I will,” she said, stroking the amulet. “For you, anything.”
He left her again. This time he did say goodbye – did thank her – did impart a peck and a promise to return. Best laid plans, he thought, as he flew to the Sacramento County Police Department. Plans, like promises . . . often go awry, he finished.
He targeted the four-level parking garage of Sacramento’s finest. Landing, he strode boldly through concrete halls, scraping each patrol car with a 3-inch protrusion of Fidel. The squad cars were Dodge Chargers. Great cars, he acknowledged, having owned a Pursuit back in his Bondsman days, but not quite the vehicle he was looking for.
“Hey, buddy,” a cop hollered. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”
Ralph kept walking. He had the casual air of a grocery shopper – perusing produce or comparing breakfast cereals. The shrill squeal of metal on metal got the notice of more cops. “What the hell are you doing?” another shouted.
Ralph kept walking, scrawling long sinewaves into the bodies of squad cars. When he got to the end of the row, he looked around. He’d gotten the attention of five, six, maybe seven cops. They were pointing and pulling their weapons, approaching him with caution. That’s when Ralph spotted the Lenco BearCat – an armored tactical van commonly utilized by SWAT teams. He’d had the pleasure of receiving “ride-alongs” with cop friends he’d made over his long career of law enforcement. On one such ride, he promised himself that if he ever went on a Godzillian rampage, he’d do it inside the iron belly of a BearCat.
“Step away from the vehicle, pahdnah,” a cop with mirror glasses said. Ralph thought he said ‘partner,’ but was unsure.
Ralph went about his business. He slapped the steel, riveted exterior of the BearCat, admiring the solidity of the vehicle. “Is this the G3 or G4 series?” he asked. Not waiting for an answered, he said, “Shame it doesn’t have external gun mounts. The SWAT unit in Denton, Texas has twin .50 cals.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me, pahdnah,” Mirror-glasses said, “turn around and place your hands on the vehicle.”
Ralph scratched his bald head with the hand-dagger and said, “You said step away from the vehicle, then you said put my hands on the vehicle . . . which is it . . . pahdnah?”
“We’ve got a screwball,” Mirror-glasses said in his mic. “Might need backup. He’s got a blade.”
“Backup,” Ralph scowled. “There’s what” . . . he counted seven cops like a kid playing eeny-meeny-miny-mo. “Seven of you. And only one of me . . . me . . . a sixty-year old grandpa with sciatica and gout. What a bunch of pussies.”
One of the guys broke rank, but Mirror-glasses waved him back. “You done a ton of damage, old man. That’s vandalism. Malicious destruction of State property. You’re already looking at a year in the State Penitentiary. Now do us all a favor and put down that potato peeler so you don’t end up in the State Cemetery, pahdnah.”
Channeling a man with Tourette Syndrome, Ralph continued to twitch, tic, and mumble random profanities as he admired the armored truck. With no warning, he pressed his right palm to the driver-side window and triggered Fidel, like a pneumatic bolt gun, to smash the bullet proof glass. He then reached inside the cab and released the door lock.
“Whoa!” a rookie responded, taking aim with his weapon.
“Don’t shoot me,” Ralph said, sensing the boy’s posture more than seeing it. “Your life is not in danger.”
“Yours is,” Mirror-glasses said, lowering his voice to subhuman levels.
Ralph, with his back turned to the men, continued to enter the BearCat. He pulled himself into the driver’s seat and flipped down the sun visor, hoping a fob of keys would plop into his lap. When none did, he pressed his palm to the ignition and re-activated Fidel. He twisted the steel in the ignition until the diesel vehicle burbled to life.
He slammed the armored door shut and called out of the shattered window: “You boys ever see the movie called Smokey and the Bandit? Well, I’m the Bandit . . . catch me if you can.” He rammed it into reverse, crashing into several black-and-white cruisers. The cops dodged and scattered as the cars collided, caroming like dominos.
“Fire at will,” Mirror-glasses ordered. The cops did not hesitate. They bounced rounds off the BearCat until Mirror-glasses realized that he’d been hit by ricochet. Perhaps his own bullet.
“Cease fire,” he moaned, holding his shoulder. “I’m hit.”
The rookie reported into his radio with high-pitched professionalism. “We’ve got a 10-999 in the parking garage of SAC PD. Officer down. I repeat, officer down.” After releasing the mic key, he ran to the fallen cop, accidentally stepping on his displaced mirror glasses.
“Catch him,” Mirror-glasses whispered, thinking it perhaps his final words. “Catch that sumbitch and send him to sonny Jesus.”
The chase commenced. It was all that Ralph had hoped it to be. During his career as a Bondsman, he’d given chase to scofflaws and scoundrels on countless occasions. This was his first time in the rabbit position. He liked it. Liked it a lot.
He took Highway 5 to Midtown, then CR80 to Downtown. He missed no opportunity to smash the BearCat into parking meters and fire hydrants and storefront light poles. When City Center got congested, he veered south, toward more bucolic environs. He actually yelled “Yee-Haw” as he scattered a passel of golfers, driving pell-mell down the fairway of Hole 18 on William Land Golf Resort. He started with two chasers – their sirens blaring and lights blazing. After fifteen minutes, the pack of pursuers increased to ten. The sirens excited him; he could not lie. For the first time, he put himself in the boots of all the Jumpers he’d hunted. He’d loved catching them – but, suddenly, he was certain they’d loved running from him. Cat and mouse. Hound and fox. Predator, prey. It was all the same. All of it, thrilling.
Sacramento’s finest caught Ralph at East Lawn Memorial Cemetery. He smashed into a family mausoleum as large as his first house. Above the cornice was as sculpture – it was a life-size marble replica of the famous “Weeping Angel.” Ralph – stalled, radiator steaming, engine revving, transmission whirring – watched the Weeping Angel statue teeter, threatening to tip off its pedestal and crush him.
“Out of the truck,” a cop with Magnum PI mustache barked through a bullhorn.
Ralph wasted no time. He popped the latch and shoved the door with his shoulder and spilled out onto the freshly mowed lawn. As the statue reached its tipping point, he rolled to avoid the angel of death. It landed near him, one wing stabbing the soil like a spade, the other breaking into marble shards.
“Our Betters bedamned!” he cursed, rattled by the close call. “Trying to kill me before I can” –
“You’re under arrest,” Magnum shouted, panting and pointing his pistol down at Ralph.
“Seems fair,” Ralph said. “I’ll go peacefully. Look, hands behind my back.” He rolled over and presented his clasped hands.
The rookie got a running start and kicked Ralph in the ribs. “That’s for shooting Sergeant Turnbull, you asshole!”
Ralph tried to laugh, but his side stitched up. “I don’t have a gun, young man. I didn’t shoot anyone.”
“Search the BearCat for a weapon,” Magnum ordered. “If you can’t find a gun then . . . you know . . . find a gun.”
Ralph managed a laugh this time. “You guys are an embarrassment. Let an old fart like me run circles around you . . . pathetic.”
They cuffed him, ratcheting the clasps to bite into his bones. “Who’s pathetic now, gramps? Huh? Huh?” Magnum goaded, pressing his knee to Ralph’s neck.
Ralph briefly considered slicing the cuffs with Fidel and kicking all their asses, if only to prove them pitiable. Then he remembered the nascent plan he’d devised while in Virginia’s apartment. “Guess you’ll have to take me to jail,” he said.
“Damn skippy,” Magnum said, and two dozen cops brayed mutual approval.
Ralph was fingerprinted and processed at the Sacramento County Police Department. It was no surprise to him that he was placed in a separate cluster of cells reserved for newbies. Call it luck or divine providence, but Ralph was placed next to Baby Dwayne Proffit, alleged murderer of gubernatorial candidate Hoss Proffit. The row of cinderblock cells reminded Ralph of the pig sties he’d encountered while Capturing and Caging the Cardinal Sin, Gluttony. The advantage of the cells’ configuration, he noticed, was that he would be placed adjacent to Baby Dwayne, but not within his line-of-sight.
“Hey, pal,” Ralph said through the wall vent. “Are you the hero that offed Hoss Proffit?”
There was no answer. Only the sound of meditative breathing, slow and measured and imperturbable.
“I know everyone loved him,” Ralph continued, “but he was a fucking megalomaniacal monster. For all I know, he was one of them space alien blood-suckin’ shapeshiftin’ baby-eaters. No way he was human. You did the right thing, champ. You saved the fuckin’ world by shooting that godawful monster.”
The breathing quickened in the adjacent cell.
“They should give you a medal for what you did,” Ralph continued. “You did the Gods’ work . . . because . . . you know . . . the Gods couldn’t be bothered.”
“Who are you?” Baby Dwayne Proffit asked sharply.
“Just a guy that got sideways with the law,” Ralph said. “Like you.”
“Sideways,” Baby Dwayne said. “I killed my brother in front of twenty-thousand living witnesses. What did you do?”
“Went for a joyride,” Ralph laughed. “He had it comin’, ya know.”
“Of course, Hoss,” Ralph said. “He got all the attention, all the praise, all the ladies . . . I’d wager.”
“Yes,” Baby Dwayne said. “That’d be a wise wager.”
“And you,” Ralph pried, “I’d bet a buffalo nickel that you were the brains of the outfit. Sure, he had the brawn and the bluster, but from what I saw on the boob-tube, you were the mastermind.”
“Mastermind,” Baby Dwayne chuckled. “I like that.” He parsed the word, savoring it. “Mas-ter-mind.”
Ralph probed: “What’s gonna happen to you, Baby Dwayne? Can I call you Baby Dwayne?”
Baby Dwayne did not address the last question. “Who knows what the fates hold in store for one born as untimely as I?”
“Do you regret it?” Ralph asked.
There was a long silence, punctuated by metronomic breathing. Ralph could hear the smile in Baby Dwayne’s voice when he replied: “Ask me again in two days.”
The next day, Ralph demanded that he be allowed to make a phone call. It was not to a lawyer, not to Mirabelle, not to Mr. Jordan in the Celestial Chamber. It was to Virginia DeVine.
“V, it’s me, Ralph.”
Her words tumbled: “The operator said you were calling from Sacramento County Jail and asked if I’d accept the charges. What in the hell is going on?”
“Complicated,” Ralph said. “No time to go into it. Now . . . I need you to answer a few questions. Please, answer as succinctly as possible. We’re being monitored. So, no elaboration, Virginia. Got it?”
“Sure, I mean I think so . . . I mean, yes.”
Ralph turned his back to the correction’s officer that watched him. “Did you get the job we discussed?”
“The job,” she said, “the job, the job?”
“The cosmetic job,” he reminded her. “For that special client?”
“Oh, yes. Yes I did,” she said. “They liked the price.”
“When is the main event?”
“The main event . . . you mean the funeral?”
“It’s tomorrow evening . . . 5pm.”
“On the third day,” Ralph mused.
“What?” she asked.
“Never mind. Where does it take place?”
“Saint Bernard’s Church on Riverside Road.”
“Big event? Media coverage?”
“Yes, it’s supposed to be massive – even by California standards.”
“Will you perform your duties there? At the church?”
“Yes, they have a room. I’ll bring my things and do my best.”
“I know you will,” Ralph said, thinking ahead, drifting, conjecturing.
“Ralph,” Virginia asked, “can you tell me anything? I’m so confused?”
“I can tell you one thing,” he said. “You’re doing Gods’ work. And I appreciate it. Virginia . . . I appreciate you.”
She started to sob. He covered the phone receiver, not wanting the CO to dip into his intimacy.
“V,” he said sternly. “I need you to do one more thing.”
“I need you to retrieve something – acquire something. A souvenir, of sorts.”
There was silence. He knew she was confused. “A memento,” he tried, aware of the clicks and clucks in the line.
More silence, then: “From the client?”
“Yes, from the client. Something personal . . . intimate.”
“Oh . . . kay,” she said.
“Can you do that for me?” he said, demanding more than questioning.
“I can,” she said, sniffing back snot and tears. “I can, Ralph.”
He sighed, assured by her resolve. “Did I mention that I appreciate you?”
The operator interrupted: “Your time is up. Your call is terminated.” Click.
Ralph was appointed a lawyer named Dave Shapiro. The young man was kind but frazzled, overwhelmed, and unorganized.
“Judge Melvin wants you arraigned tomorrow afternoon,” Dave Shapiro said. “Five o’clock. It’ll take a few hours, so eat a good lunch. Maybe an early dinner if the CO allows it. I’ll have to ask my wife, Vera, to pick up the kids. But it’s necessary to your case and” –
Ralph took the pen from the lawyer as he scrawled notes. “It’s okay,” Ralph said. “Pick up your kids. Have a nice dinner with your family. I won’t be attending my arraignment tomorrow afternoon.”
Shapiro looked up from his scheduler, mouth open, eyes squinted. “Why not?”
“I have a prior engagement,” Ralph said. He then walked over to his commode, unzipped his jumpsuit, and commenced to toilet himself. It was a time-honored trick he’d learned from his colleagues in law enforcement. If you ever want some privacy in the joint, take a dump.
“Okay,” Shapiro said, holding his nose. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the arraignment. If you have access to a suit and tie, that would be helpful. Be well, Mr. Chamberlain.”
“Shalom,” Ralph said, grinning from the commode. “You be well, as well.”
On the third day of Hoss Proffit’s death state, everything that was going to happen, happened.
“It’s almost five o’clock,” Ralph said through the vent between cells.
“If you say so,” Baby Dwayne replied.
“You know,” Ralph said, “the funeral starts at five. Hoss’ funeral. Your brother’s funeral.”
“If you say so.”
Ralph mused, “Know what would be kinda cool?”
“If,” Ralph picked up, “if you and I bounced on over to St. Bernard’s Church and crashed it?”
“Did you miss your meds, Ralph?” Baby Dwayne asked. “Sounds like you might be . . . all due respect . . . losing your shit.”
Ralph laughed. “All due respect, you’re not the first one that’s told me that.”
They laughed together for short span, then Ralph said: “Ready?”
“Ready?” Baby Dwayne asked, puzzled. “Ready for what?”
Tired of the tedious banter, Ralph activated Fidel. With a swift and silent swoosh, he sliced through the electro-mechanical slam lock. He stepped out of his cell, looking left and right for guards. He’d hoped they would be in the lounge, watching the nation-wide spectacle of Hoss Proffit’s funeral, and they were.
Ralph tapped on Baby Dwayne’s iron bars with his sword and said, “Knock knock.”
Baby Dwayne looked up from his bunk and immediately recognized Ralph for who he was. “Raphael,” he said, clutching his dirty pillow.
“In the flesh,” Ralph said, expanding his wings. “Ready?”
Baby Dwayne cowered in the corner, kicking his threadbare blanket into a bunch. “Get away. I’m not who you think I am. Go! I’ll call the guards!”
Ralph sliced through the lock and entered Baby Dwayne’s cell. “You know how this works, Envy. Dead or alive . . . doesn’t matter to me. A Capture and Cage is a Capture and Cage – either way, I’m winning.”
“I’m Baby Dwayne Proffit,” he mewled. “My brother is – was – is Hoss Proffit. He will not allow you to accost me. He will” –
Ralph picked Baby Dwayne up by the collar of his coveralls and looked him in the eye. “If you don’t hold on to me, you will fall. If you fall, you will succumb to gravity and physics. In short, you will die horribly as your insides become outsides. So what’s your takeaway from this speech?”
“H-h-hold on,” he stammered. Baby Dwayne then reached around Ralph’s torso, hugging him with the zest one hugs a porcupine.
Ralph pointed Fidel at the eastern cell wall and launched himself, along with his fugitive cargo. At Fidel’s tip, the blade bunched into a bludgeon, ramming the cinder, bashing a dusty hole from which Ralph flew to freedom . . . flew, indeed, to the location of his next Jumper, Hoss Proffit.
Ralph almost dropped Baby Dwayne as they soared over the west coast, toward the magnificent stone church called St. Bernard’s. “Pride cometh before a fall,” he admonished the wriggling Baby Dwayne.
“So you know,” Baby Dwayne gasped, “who Hoss is?”
“Look at me,” Ralph said. “I’m an old man. As an Ark Angel, my life is measured in eons. I wasn’t born yesterday. Of course I know who Hoss is. He’s six-of-six. He’s Pride, the Crowned King of Vice.”
“Do you know what’s going to happen? The plan?” Baby Dwayne asked, hoping to have some leverage with which to bargain.
“I have my suspicions,” Ralph said, spying a helicopter. “Today is third day of his death . . . there’s something familiar about that story.”
Below, Ralph spotted the noble old church, its stone walls carpeted with crawling ivy. He noted the massive brass bell seated in the upper cradle of the church’s bell tower. The parking lots were overflowing. Cars spilled onto adjacent pastures and meadows – even jamming the single access road. People streamed into the great hall like marching ants. Bag pipers, kitted to Highland perfection, droned ear-piercing dirges. A procession of priests rung altar bells and swung incense thuribles, chanting Latin lamentations. News crews filmed and paparazzi flashed. Ralph thought it all a bit much for a celebrity candidate that had devoted his life to violence, physically and civically.
He landed in heavy foliage behind the church, where he hoped to find haven in an anteroom. He used Fidel to break and enter. He lugged his prisoner along with him into the sacristy, the room in which priests stored parish records and vestments, oils and liniments, wine and more wine.
Baby Dwayne was listless from the flight – the lack of oxygen having sapped his vitality. He lay on across a padded altar, languid, like an unstrung marionette.
“I’ll be back,” Ralph said. “I’ve got to find a woman.”
Baby Dwayne’s mouth opened and closed, fishlike, uttering grunts and croaks.
Ralph took a quick slug of sacramental wine to fortify himself, and then set about his quest to find Virginia – the keeper of his ark amulet. His initial plan, such as it was, consisted of two bullet points: retrieve the ark amulet from Virginia, then complete the Capture phase with Envy. That would eliminate one problem – one adversary. Hence, diminish his opposition by fifty percent. With Envy secured, he would then be free to pursue Pride . . . in whatever form the braggadocio Cardinal presented itself.
The wine soured in his mouth as he stalked through the backrooms of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church. So many secret rooms. So many secrets, he thought. He noticed a room that looked promising – the sign over the lintel read: Private. Do Not Enter.
With the help of Fidel, he entered.
There was an audible gasp. He immediately recognized the exclamation to be that of Virginia DeVine.
“V,” he said. “It’s me.” It occurred to him he’d used that same opener several times in the last week.
“Oh, Ralph, thank God,” she said, holding scissors with one hand, and a blush brush in the other. She was standing over a gold-plated coffin. Standing over the corpse of Hoss Proffit, martyr.
“I thought,” she said, looking at Hoss, then Ralph, then at Hoss again, “he moved.” She laughed dryly, then asked: “You’ve come for the necklace?”
“I have,” he said, shutting the door and admiring her work. “You managed to turn this beast into a beauty, Virginia.”
She took the necklace off and handed it to Ralph. “It took a quart of spackling to plaster that gash. His brother must have used a large caliber handgun. Yes, it was a challenge, but I’ve had tougher jobs. Hell, I did Cher’s makeup and hair for the Grammy’s last year.”
Ralph came around to her side of the coffin and placed his hands on her shoulder. For that moment, he loved her. It was not the forever love he’d shared with Olivia; it was a love of timeliness and trust – sealed with the waxen stamp of fate.
“Did you get the . . .” he started, then choked on the noun.
“The memento,” she rescued. “The souvenir you asked for . . . yes.” She handed him a velvet drawstring bag. He took it from her and examined it. The gold embroidery read “Crown Royal.”
She laughed as he tossed it from hand to hand, like a prospector weighing gold. “I put it in there,” she said. “A gift bag seemed wrong, a shoebox seemed too bulky so I” – she trailed off.
He wanted to look inside. Wanted to verify the token, the memento, as sufficient; as legitimate currency for his Capture and Cage protocols, payment for Doggerrall, but time was short. He could hear the choir reaching a crescendo. He tossed the drawstring bag back to her.
There was a knock on the door. “Miss DeVine? It’s Father Severino. Are you ready?”
Ralph looked at her and nodded. She said, “Yes . . . almost ready. Two minutes.”
Ralph quickly concealed himself behind a tapestry that depicted Jesus reaching down from the cross and blessing Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. When he was fully hidden, Ralph reached his hand out and gave Virginia the thumb’s up.
“Okay,” she called to the door. “I’ve done all I can do. C’mon in.”
The priest hustled through the door, issuing orders to four associates. “Gentle, gentle . . . roll him into the nave and park him before the altar, so that the bereaved can pay their respects. Got it?”
The associates nodded, handling the enormous gold coffin with reverence.
“You did a divine job, Miss DeVine,” the Priest said, amused at his homophone.
“Thank you,” she said. “It was a challenge. I did my best.”
“Mr. Proffit would be quite pleased,” he said. “He looks quite lively . . .” he grimaced to show his unease . . . “unsettling so.”
They both laughed. Then she said, “That’s the objective, isn’t it, Father?” She held up an airbrush and modeling knife and tilted her head.
As Father Severino followed the men out of the room, he looked back and said, “Please, Miss DeVine, invoice my office. You must accept remuneration. Your talents are god-given. Name your price.”
“All I want,” she said, bowing her head humbly, “is to watch, Father. Watch the ceremony . . . from the wings. If it is permissible.”
He made the sign of the cross and said, “Bless you, my child. It is permissible. Follow me and I’ll show you an enclave where your view will be unimpeded.”
She followed the priest. And Ralph followed her.
He had to follow her, he decided. He didn’t know the layout of the massive tabernacle, and the assurance of an unimpeded view was irresistible, as well as strategic. However, Ralph was torn. He now had the ark amulet in his possession. The smart thing to do was to sprint back to the sacristy and incarcerate Hoss’ brother, Baby Dwayne – hence, eliminating Envy, half of his two-fold opposition. He recalled Envy, strewn over the altar, gasping like a fish; he calculated that Envy was low hanging fruit, and that he need focus on what Aristotle called the Crown Vice, the Cardinal Sin called Pride.
After Father Severino led Virginia to the promised enclave, Ralph counted ten beats, waiting for the old cleric to clear the area. He then joined Virginia.
“We can see everything from here,” she said, peeking through a seam in silk drapes.
Ralph eyeballed his target. “Keep your peepers on the big guy.”
“Hoss?” she asked. “Why Hoss?”
He shushed her when the music stopped and Father Severino commenced the visitation portion of the funeral. “Please,” the Father said to the twelve-hundred privileged souls allowed in the nave of the church, “come say your farewells to the estimable Llewelyn “Hoss” Proffit. I encourage alacrity – so that all bereaved be afforded a moment of closure.”
Ralph and Virginia looked at each other with open disgust, mouthing the name: Llewelyn.
For the next forty-five minutes, people from all over the Golden State paid their final respects to one, Hoss Proffit. It was odd blend of humanity, Ralph observed. The vast majority seemed to be rural, if not rubes. But, shot throughout the teaming proletariat, were a few A-List Hollywood elite. Virginia recognized some of her famous clients. “I knew they were nutters,” she whispered, “but I thought they were liberal nutters.”
As the masses filed past, Father Severino read from a prepared script, given him by Hoss’ handlers.
“. . . at the tender age of nine,” Severino intoned, “Hoss graduated from MIT with Summa Cum Laude honors. Coincidentally, it was the same year he invented the prototype for what would become known as the Quantum Computer.”
“Do people really believe that garbage?” Virginia asked Ralph.
He shook his head, exasperated. “Beats me.”
“. . . at fourteen, Hoss perfected a submersible reverse-osmosis pump used to extract water from arid regions in the Sahara Desert – saving millions of African villagers from starvation and dehydration. For his heroic achievement, he was awarded the Primrose Peabody Humanitarian Award.”
“Is that a thing?” Virginia asked.
“. . . at twenty-three, Hoss garnered Welterweight Championships in four combat sports: boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts. At twenty-six, he put on eighty-five pounds of muscle and advanced to the heavyweight class – reigning as the undisputed champion in all disciplines. At twenty-nine, he was voted The Most Dangerous Man Alive; at thirty, the Sexiest Man Alive. At thirty-one, Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. At thirty-two, he applied himself to the science of EBE, Exogenous Bodily Enhancement – becoming a pioneer and zealous participant in the experimental, if controversial field Human Enhancement. At thirty-three, he hung up his jockstrap and entered an even more pugilistic arena – politics.”
Virginia whispered to Ralph, “I want his PR guy to write my obit.”
Father Severino continued: “. . . I stand before you today, as a representative of the Family of Man, shocked and saddened by the sudden and senseless passing of a Great American – arguably the Greatest American – Hoss Proffit. Here he lies before us, an athlete, an innovator, a polymath, a prophet, a visionary, and tragically, a martyr. Hoss was a big man with big dreams – a selfless man that sacrificed his life on the altar of progress. Where he saw a division, he built a bridge. Where he saw injustice, he brought law. Where he saw ignorance, he shown light. Where he saw cruelty, he kindled kindness.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ralph said, “wasn’t this guy a bloody cage fighter?”
Virginia smiled and said, “Jealous?”
The word triggered him, prompting him to rethink his decision to leave Envy – Baby Dwayne Proffit – unattended in the sacristy.
Father Severino called upon singers to commemorate the man in song, poets to eulogize the man in rhyme, comedians to exalt the man in reverential jests. As the procession ebbed and people were seated, Father Severino called upon the sitting Governor of California to eulogize the fallen savant. “It is only fitting that California’s most prominent civil servant, Governor Robert “Rowdy” Gowdy, be given the opportunity to address the passing of The Golden State’s finest son. I give you Governor Gowdy.”
The crowd growled, its tone low and threatening.
A folksy old fellow wearing black jeans, a black jacket, a plaid shirt, a black cowboy hat, and a silver bolo tie, approached the podium. He fiddled with the mic, as if it were his first crack at public speaking.
“This thing on?” he said, tapping the mic. He cleared his phlegmy throat and removed his hat. “When the good Padre asked me to eulogize Llewelyn Proffit – no, I will not use that ridiculous, juvenile nickname, Hoss – I asked the Padre two questions: ‘You sure you got the right phone number?’ And, ‘Are you out of your motherlovin’ mind?’”
There was a crackling of reluctant laughter.
“After that exchange, I asked Padre Severino if he was aware that I was in a heated gubernatorial recall race with Llewelyn Proffit? He said, yes. I asked the good Padre if he was aware that Proffit had called my wife a horse-faced monkey-witch? He said, yes. I asked the good Padre if he was aware that Proffit promised to burn the governor’s mansion down if he was not elected? With me, Meg, and our pooch, Baxter, inside? He said, ‘yes . . . yes, I do Governor Gowdy. I surely do.’”
From his regal seat, Father Severino nervously thumbed the beads of his rosary.
“So, naturally, I told the good Padre I’d do it – but on the condition I not be censored. I asked the good Padre if I could speak what was on my heart, and say what was on my tongue. And the good Padre said, yes.”
The gaggle of reporters and camera-handlers leaned out of their gallery, extending boom mics and focusing lenses.
“Unlike Llewelyn Proffit, I keep my promises,” Gowdy said. “I told the good Padre I’d eulogize the son-of-a-bitch, and eulogize I’ll do. Friends and foes, lovers and haters – California has lost a truly unique man – not a good man, great man, or even a decent man. But a man just the same. A man – a man created in the image of Our Maker. And for that, he deserves a modicum of respect.”
Gowdy cleared his throat into the mic, scrubbing his prodigious mustache with a handkerchief. “And that’s about the last kind thing I have to say about the bastard. Some called him compelling; I say repelling. Some called him engrossing; I say gross. Some say he was charismatic; I say caricature. I say dangerous. I say narcissistic and nihilistic and globally ruinous. There’s many descriptors for one such as Llewelyn Proffit. The word – the default description I keep coming back to is . . . clownish. Llewelyn Proffit was a blustering buffoon . . . a circus clown. Even in death – just look at him – with gold coffin and his bejeweled Gucci suit and spray tan, wearing his garish, tin title belt – this man is a sad, tragic, humorless clown . . . in death, as he was in life.”
There was a shuffling of soles and ruffling of programs. The heartbeat of the crowd quickened as they breathed from their mouths.
“Make no mistake, I’d have beaten him in the Governor’s recall race,” Governor Gowdy said. “Beaten him like his mama should’ve.”
The crowd bristled. One shrill woman piped up and said, “Now see here.”
Gowdy hushed her with his palms. “Llewelyn appealed to assholes.” Governor Gowdy cleared his throat again. “Pardon my French, Padre. Llewelyn appealed to folks like you, lady. Willful idiots” . . . he paused and pointed to the entire crowd . . . “rich idiots and poor idiots. Idiots all.”
A man with a florid face shouted something angry and unintelligible. Another shapely woman spat at the speaker, forgetting to lift her black veil.
“And that eulogy you just gave, Padre . . . that garbage you read,” Governor Gowdy said, turning to face Father Severino. “You should be ashamed, Father. Lyin’ in the House of God. That sounded like the propaganda for Kim Jung-ill or Jesus Christ himself. I’m surprised you didn’t add that Llewelyn was born of a virgin. Could levitate. Could rise from the dead.” Gowdy looked down at his notes and laughed. “My staff did a little fact-checkin’. Llewelyn Proffit did indeed attend MIT . . . Monterrey Industrial Trade school. He flunked out of HVAC class at twenty-one. Busted for meth at twenty-three. Learned to fight in the yard while in San Quentin.”
“You lie,” a young man shrieked.
“I lie?” Gowdy said, jutting his tongue to mock the man. “Son, you don’t know a lie from horny toad. Go ahead, google that shit on the little gizmo in your back pocket. I’ll wait.” Gowdy crossed his arms and knotted his jaw.
Ralph put his hand on the back of Virginia’s sweaty neck. “It’s about to go sideways in here . . . you better scram, V.”
“And miss the show? Not on my life.”
Ralph shook his head, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. “Seriously, V. This crowd is a powder keg. You’re not safe.”
She reached into the laced collar of her low-cut blouse and retrieved a white feather. “Not to worry,” she said, “I’ve got a lucky charm.” She twirled the feather – the gift from his wings.
As he was about to admonish her, a broad-butted woman threw her shoe at Governor Gowdy. He ducked and it flew past him, striking Father Severino on the shoulder. Two men in a dark suits emerged from east and west wing curtains, guns drawn. Ralph assumed they were agents attached to Gowdy’s Dignitary Protection Section. It was confirmed when they loped over altars and tackled the governor.
“Christ,” Virginia ejaculated, then quickly covered her mouth.
“DPS,” Ralph assured her. “The good guys. They protect the gov.”
When the florid-faced man saw the drawn guns, he drew his own. He flung it forward and jerked off three errant shots, one striking a bald head in front of him. A mist of skull blood sprayed three rows deep, panicking dozens, which panicked hundreds.
The two DPS agents muscled Gowdy to a secured position behind the podium. They then went offensive, attempting to pinpoint the source of the fired shot. But, suddenly, there were more guns, more gunmen, more gunshots. The crowd, it seemed, had come strapped, prepared for a Wild West gunfight.
“Give me the mic,” Gowdy ordered. The younger agent stood and snatched the mic from the cradle. Two bullets whizzed by Gowdy’s ears as he stood. He took the mic and tapped it again. “This thing on?”
Half of the herd were sheep, the other half sheepdogs. The sheep bolted over pews and rushed, in a single-minded mindlessness, toward exits. Meanwhile, the sheepdogs fired wildly at enemies, real and imagined.
“I’m gonna need you all to calm-the-fudge-down,” Gowdy said, sounding conciliatory and folksy. “We’re gathered to bury one dead man, not ten dozen.”
The agents shot two men that stormed the dais. Then a woman. Then two more men.
“For the love of Pete,” Gowdy shouted into the mic. “Don’t come up here after me. My bodyguards will shoot ya as soon as look at ya. It’s their job. You pay ‘em to do it.”
The pitch of the mob’s din vacillated from mournful wails to warring cries. Ralph stepped out from the silk veil and beheld the melee. How had it escalated so quickly? he puzzled. Then he recalled the vile character of the dearly departed, the guest of honor – Hoss Proffit. Suddenly, the chaos seemed fitting. Hoss would be quite proud of the mayhem.
“I’ve got to do something,” Ralph told Virginia.
She grabbed the sleeve of his pea coat and said, “We could fly . . . you and I. Fly away.” She looked up into the shaft of the bell tower, as if it were a portal to the soliciting sky.
He smiled his lopsided smile and kissed her ruby lips. He then turned toward the teeth of the beast and leaped into the fray.
Ralph did not deploy his wings inside the church. Yes, Catholic doctrine affirmed the existence of such creatures as he – Ralph understood that. But he also understood that even within this sanctified place, even within the minds of sanctified souls; angels were more abstract than fact. To add a spark of the supernatural to this kindling, he thought, could ignite a firestorm.
The man with the florid face pointed his handgun at the Governor and babbled: “You killed Hoss. You hired an assassin, you bastard! You and your cronies in the Deep State killed that Christly man . . . now I’m gonna kill you!”
Ralph sliced through the barrel of the metal weapon just as the crazed man jerked the trigger. The gun exploded, turning his hand black and red and white – the white belonging to exposed bones and spaghetti nest of tendons. The man held his ragged wrist and stared at his massacred hand with disbelief.
“Better get that looked at,” Governor Gowdy said, then booted the man off the dais.
Ralph weaved through the crowd, seeking guns. He slashed handguns wherever he found them, hoping to neutralize the violence. But the violence would not be quelled. A group of women sprayed Bear Repellent indiscriminately, causing flashpoints of insanity and panic. Others used hymnals as cudgels, fighting their way to the dais, toward the Governor who stood akimbo on the dais.
“They’ll shoot ya,” Governor Gowdy said, as casual as a man reminding his wife to fetch milk. “Sure as Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree . . . Roger and Wally here will shoot you dead. Be warned. Do not step one foot on this dais.”
A man grabbed the Catholic flag, lowered the long pole like a lance, and charged the dais. Both DPS agents aimed and fired. Only one gun discharged.
They’re running out of ammo, Ralph thought. They didn’t pack for a riot – understandable, but inexcusable.
Ralph fought through the mob, trying to find the heart of the beast. He could feel the beat, the pulse of the thing, rapping faster, tapping louder, clapping in his ears. The malevolent metronome was building to a crescendo. As he searched, the muscular mob squeezed him, constricting his body. In his skull, he heard the tattoo of his heart, the shuddering rush of his blood. Building. Racing. Surging.
The bell rang – the forty-ton brass bell stolen from Mexico a one hundred-and-fifty years prior. A bell colloquially called Old Poncho. Its chime rhymed with the heartbeat of the throng. They reveled in its brassy echo, pagans dancing ecstatically, sacrificing themselves to themselves.
Ralph swam over a sea of people, their faces alternately red with rage, or white with fear. He smelled the stink of the beast – the seminal source of malevolence. He punched a man with a sprung jackknife and when that man fell, Ralph saw the cause of the mob, its evil engine. It was Baby Dwayne Proffit. It was Envy.
“You really shouldn’t have left me all alone,” Baby Dwayne Proffit said. “I can be quite a handful . . . left to my own devices.”
Old Poncho struck its fourth chime.
Ralph clamped his hands over his ears. Was it always this loud? Couldn’t be. This was part of the show. The bell was part of the show. Brought to you, courtesy of the Proffit Productions.
Envy dove into the crowd, gliding, surfing – an eel in silt. Ralph tried to follow. He now realized that his ark amulet was juddering under his shirt – had been, for several minutes. He pulled it out and flipped the top. He needed only get close to Envy – to touch the amulet to Envy’s skin and say the sacred things – and the Capture would commence.
The fifth chime rang out, even louder than its antecedents. Ralph flipped the collar on his pea coat and muffled it as best he could. But the noise was blinding, and he lost his Jumper. He wished he could take a full five minutes to kick himself for leaving Envy in the sacristy, but time was precious.
Seconds later, the sixth bell echoed that trope. Old Poncho was so loud that people ceased their remonstrations, dropped to their knees, and hugged their heads with their arms. All went silent. Ralph didn’t know if he’d been struck deaf or if the bell had quieted the unrest with its booming fiat.
“Attention,” Baby Dwayne Proffit said, taking the mic from the crouching Governor Gowdy.
Ralph looked up at the dais. The two agents from the Dignitary Protection Section, Roger and Wally, were dead. They lie at the Governor’s feet, necks broken, faces turned to view their own asses.
“May I have your undivided attention, please?” Baby Dwayne Proffit asked. He smiled serenely, a man unhurried, allowing the echo of Old Poncho to wash over him like a sonic bath. “It’s six o’clock. The party has started,” he said into the mic. “We have a special guest. A man we all love. A native son of the Golden State; a true mensch. A man that needs no further introduction. Californians, I give you your next Governor, my brother, Hoooooss Prooooffit!”
In unison, all members of the exhausted mob lifted their heads and viewed the golden casket. They saw what Ralph saw: the torso of Hoss Proffit, lying in state, arms crossed, eyes closed, hair perfect, dead.
And then he wasn’t.
A tornado of fire consumed the wood of the coffin. It happened so fast – too fast for the human eye. But Ralph saw it. Saw it all. Saw Hoss Proffit’s sneaky thumb press a secret button. Saw a ring of fire alight under the casket, fueled by propane through aluminum piping. Saw the casket melt into a white mist.
Styrofoam, he intuited. An old David Copperfield trick.
Saw the helix of fire rise and die. Saw Hoss Proffit glide like a bird, then land like a cat –feet down, and right himself before an eye could blink twice.
The crowd sucked in the hot oxygen that roared over Hoss’ head.
“Miss me much?” Hoss asked, cocking his head quizzically.
The group of women that had blasted Bear Repellent into the crowd, stormed the stage and ripped off their dour, black dresses, showing their skimpy dance outfits. It was Hoss’ Hotties, Ralph saw, ashamed of the stupid grin that stamped his face.
“Well, I missed you,” Hoss called, mocking a hug and a smooch to the crowd. “You showed your love here today. You showed me you’d do just about anything for old Hossy Pants. What say we finish this little riot with a flourish?”
The crowd remained on their knees, their mouths open, as if their jaws were busted. Some wept. Some laughed. Some crossed themselves and shook their heads in disbelief.
Ralph was the first to look up. It was a rope, he saw, abseiling from the shaft of the billowing bell tower. As it reached Hoss’ outstretched hand, Ralph also noticed that it was looped and knotted. It was a hangman’s noose.
Hoss grabbed Governor Gowdy by his denim lapel and tugged him under the oval opening. “Gov,” he said, “you sure had some awful mean words for ol’ Hoss Proffit. There I was, dead as King Tut’s mummy, and you taking cheap shots. Unkind, sir. Unbecoming and unkind.”
Hoss’ Hotties began a low, sing-song chant. “String him up. String him up.”
It took the crowd no time to intone the order. The House of God transformed into a courtroom of wrath, replete with judgment, jury, and execution.
Hoss lassoed the Governor’s neck and cinched the knot. “Good Governor Gowdy said he was gonna beat me. I believe the phrase was: ‘beat me like my mama should’ve.’”
The crowd hissed and booed and cawed.
Hoss tightened the knot, causing the Governor to cough and jut his tongue.
“I can’t,” Father Severino spurted. “Not in God’s house. No. I can’t let this proceed.” He rose from his chair and approached Hoss, reaching for the rope. Baby Dwayne Proffit intercepted the priest, judo-chopping his adam’s apple, just above his clerical collar.
“Hooo-ya!” Baby Dwayne chirped, watching the Father fall and his robe open, exposing white thighs and hairy groin.
Hoss high-fived his brother. “Nice,” he said. “But I’m still miffed about you shooting my brains out, little brother.” As he laughed, his entire body shook, as did the podium and dais. The vibration could be felt on the church floor, where hundreds knelt in perfect supplication.
“No, no, just joshing,” Hoss finally said, wagging his hands. “I’m a true Christian. I follow the teachings of Jesus H. Christ. I forgive Baby Dwayne. Besides, if he hadn’t killed me, how else could I have risen . . . from the dead . . . on the third day . . . to be among you, here, today?”
The crowd cheered. It was their first unified expression of glee since they’d entered Saint Bernard’s Catholic Church.
“But even Jesus H. Christ had his limits,” Hoss said, his voice low and solemn. “Gentle Jesus meek-and-mild thrashed a crowd of skeevin’ Hebrews with a bullwhip. He tumped over tables and cussed the lot of ‘em. He said, ‘brother, if you don’t have a sword, sell your shirt and get a fuckin’ sword.’ He said, ‘you can’t follow me unless and until you hate your father, mother, sister, and brother.’ Might I now add to that ignoble list . . . Governor?”
The crowd leaped from their knees and cheered, their hands waving.
Baby Dwayne pushed Father Severino’s empty chair to the front of the dais. He patted the plush red cushion invitingly.
“Care for a chair?” Hoss asked Governor Gowdy.
Gowdy shook his head and growled, “Go back to Hell, Llewelyn. Hell’s where the devil belongs.”
Hoss’ Hollywood smile cracked. He abruptly lifted the man the way a mother would a baby. He placed Governor Robert Gowdy in the seat, feet first, standing; so that they were eye-to-eye.
“That’s a big boy,” Hoss cooed, tickling the dewlap of Gowdy’s chin. “Now I’m going to give you one chance to apologize for those nasty things you said about me. And one chance to recant your candidacy in the recall election. Do you know what happens if you fail to satisfy either objective?”
Governor Gowdy nodded and jutted his chin toward the mic. Hoss pushed it under the Governor’s nose, expecting a mea culpa. “If I fail to meet these objectives,” Gowdy said, “then your mother will have to use the steel wool on her syphilitic twat to knit you two brats a towel to cry in, is what happens.”
Baby Dwayne swung his wedged hand at Gowdy’s neck, but Hoss caught it. “Not yet,” he said, shaking his head.
“But,” Baby Dwayne started. “But . . . Momma . . . he said Momma’s twat” –
“I heard him,” Hoss said, smiling at the crowd and grimacing at his brother. “He’s going to be shut up for good when this rope crushes his windpipe . . . so hold your taters, Baby Dwayne.” Then he added so quietly that only Ralph and Baby Dwayne could hear him. “Stick with the plan, you fucking moron.”
Ralph and the crowd watched Baby Dwayne’s head drop, sulking.
Hoss’ Hotties started a new cheer. “Want some, get some. Want some, get some.”
Hoss turned to the crowd, whirling his cape, presenting himself. “I stand before you a revivified man. Reborn. Resurrected. Latter day Lazarus. Conqueror of worms. Friends and neighbors, boys and girls, fans and fanatics, I stand before you the Golden Boy of the Golden State, the One True Messiah.”
Ralph knew he would soon have to make his move, he simply didn’t know which move to make. He knew he’d have to capture Envy first, and then Pride – Baby Dwayne, then Hoss. It was a stupid rule, one he’d lobby to change when he returned to the Celestial Chambers. The Cardinal Sins were numbered and the sequence of their capture must comport with regulation. Six could not precede Five, and Five could not succeed Six. A stupid, but unbreakable rule.
He tried to devise a quick and dirty plan, a plan that would minimize injury and fatality of the fawning civilians. Then he recalled the quixotic killing spree the mob had just accomplished and he said to himself, “Damn it all to Hell. Let the Gods sort them out. I’m going in.”
As he loosed his wings and prepared to pounce, he noticed a riffle in the curtain behind Hoss and Baby Dwayne and Governor Gowdy. He blinked in disbelief. It was Virginia.
She burst from the silk seam, her face stretched in a scream, scissor raised, racing headlong toward the broad target of Hoss’ back. To Ralph, she had never looked more beautiful, more powerful, more divine. In that second, his love for her quickened. And when Baby Dwayne judo-chopped the side of her neck, when she made a birdy chirp, when her violet eyes blackened and blurred, when she collapsed on the dais; he knew their love was as star-crossed as any love constructed by any baleful bard.
“Virginia,” he shouted, unaware that he’d launched into flight the second he’d seen her breach the curtains. He flew a sortie over her body, scanning for damage. No blood, externally, he assessed. But Baby Dwayne was no piker. He’d gone for the carotid and most likely gotten it. She was most likely hemorrhaging within. She had five minutes, he assessed, at most.
“Was hoping you’d want some,” Hoss said, swatting at Ralph like a bee. “How about you come down here and get some.”
Ralph knew what had to be done. He had to go get some – fly right on in to the brute’s breadbasket and engage hand-to-hand, man-to-man. There was no other way to test the giant’s strength. So he clenched his teeth and pointed his bald head and dove into Hoss’ freshly risen body.
It was the absolute wrong tactic, Ralph learned. Hoss grasped him and wrapped his mighty biceps around his wings, crushing him. Ralph could hear the scaffolding of his majestic wings crunching like brittle tender.
He engaged Fidel. Despite his mostly immobile wrist, he slashed at the man and managed to rend his bejeweled jacket and studded slacks. Aghast, Hoss reacted, releasing Ralph, examining his torn wardrobe. “You ruined my suit,” he said, stunned. “My Gucci funeral suit.”
Ralph smoothed his wings, aware that some bones were broken. “Sorry?” he said, unsure of a proper retort. He then pointed at Hoss’ slacks. “Looks like you’ve had a wardrobe malfunction, big guy.”
Hoss looked down. His shimmering slacks were sliding down his thighs, pooling around his glittering shoes. If not for the buckle of his championship belt, his crotch would be fully exposed. Hoss’ face reddened, then purpled, then blackened. His eyes bulged and he snorted like a bull. Ralph wondered if the three days of stagnant circulation had caused a brain clot. He imagined Hoss’ head exploding, his skull shards fragging him and dozens of onlookers. When this didn’t happen, he returned to the fight.
Ralph bounded off a small altar and leapt. His fractured wings failed, then caught flight, failed, then glided him toward the Cardinal Sin called Envy – Baby Dwayne. Having little flight control, Ralph pummeled into the slim man with the snaky-face. They wrapped up, rolling down the carpeted aisle, bowling over bystanders.
Baby Dwayne escaped the takedown and rose before Ralph could pin him. “Getting old, Raphael,” he said to the angel.
“I’d say I’m done with gettin’,” Ralph said. “I’ve arrived.” He willed Fidel into a sickle and swiped Fidel across Baby Dwayne’s tapered face, releasing a gout of green blood. “Figures,” Ralph said, wiping the blade clean with his jeans.
Baby Dwayne dabbed the slash, then tasted the blood. “Not bad,” he said, shrugging. “Bet yours tastes better.” His face extruded into a reptilian snout. His green irises dilated, eclipsing the whites of his eyes.
“Must be a bitch to never be satisfied,” Ralph commented. “Perpetually aggrieved. Vexed by what the other guy’s got or don’t got.”
“Save your psychoanalysis for that narcissistic galoot,” Baby Dwayne said, jerking his thumb at his pants-less brother. He pressed his palms together, bowed, and assumed a judo crouch, slowly circling Ralph.
Ralph lifted the ark amulet over his bald head. “You hit a girl. You knocked her cold . . . maybe even killed her. You vexed over that, Baby Dwayne. If so, this is the right place and right time to confess. Do it fast, because I’m about to Capture your ass.”
“I envy your confidence, Raphael,” he said. “But it’s quite obvious that you are not the Ark Angel of old. You are the old Ark Angel.” As he laughed, his skin changed color. Like a squid, his pigmentation blotted and spotted and became an irretrievably deep green.
Ralph raised Fidel and quoted: “It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”
“Shakespeare,” Baby Dwayne said, his fangs forcing a lisp.
“Iago,” Ralph said. “Guess that would make Hoss your Othello.”
“I like this new old iteration, Raphael,” Baby Dwayne said, paddling his bladed hands. “You’re so worldly, so wise. So, dare I say, human?”
For some reason, this barb penetrated Ralph’s skin. He sprung without a plan, pell-mell at his nemesis, Fidel and fists and fury.
Baby Dwayne tacked left, dodging the onslaught. He countered, slamming the heels of his hands into the side of Ralph’s head and shoulder as he passed. “Touch a nerve?” he asked, as Ralph rolled and rose to reengage.
Ralph brandished the ark amulet, flipping the lid with his thumb. “By the Authority and Warrant of Our Betters, I pronounce you under arrest. You can enter of your own volition, or I can chop you into chum and cram your emulsified corpse into this small box.”
As Baby Dwayne prepared to fight, his big brother intervened. “Baby,” Hoss shouted, “move over. I got this.”
“Pull your pants up,” Baby Dwayne snapped. “I can handle this old man without your help.”
Hoss grabbed his brother like a ragdoll and flung him. His body smashed into the chair upon which Governor Gowdy stood tippy-toed, splintering the legs. Gowdy dropped off the ledge of the seat, his Old Gringo boots dangling as he danced on air. Strangling, he clawed at the bell rope, attempting to pry his fingers under the tightening hemp cord.
To Ralph’s untold misery, Old Poncho clanged with each pendulous swing of the Governor’s body. The clamoring excited the masses, breaking the spell that Hoss had cast. They returned to mayhem as a caustic solace. In their revel, they upturned candle stands and altar lamps, setting drapes ablaze and smashing stained glass. The sonic waves of the Spanish bell seemed to fan the flames, engorging them with its evil, concussive ether.
The lace of ladies’ veils, ignited. The poly-synthetic textile of men’s suits, ignited. The hoary house of God, Saint Bernard’s Catholic Church, ignited.
Ralph tackled Hoss, reaching for his bare naked knees. He got one and hoisted it like a Scott tossing a caber. To his surprise, Hoss flew. He back-flipped and stuck a three-point superhero landing, looking up and grinning at Ralph. “You do,” he said, licking his bleached teeth, “really, really want some?”
Ralph scanned the hellscape of the nave, watching overclothed people combust; watching panes of stained glass blacken and crack and shatter; watching the votive smoke of crashed candles billow up and up and up, filling the bell tower; watching the Governor choke on a swinging rope; watching Virginia DeVine die.
Hoss punched Ralph hard, then harder, then the hardest he’d ever been punched. Ralph heard his nose break and his cheekbones crack. He landed on his ass – his extended wings catching him into a semi-seated position. Hoss lifted a marble statue Saint Bernard over his head like a battle axe. He looked down at Ralph and said, “Bad news is: This is going to hurt. Good news: It’ll only hurt until you’re dead.”
Ralph drew his wings forward to shield himself; but they were a wrecked, little more than a thatched nest for him to sit upon. “Do it,” Ralph said, shaking the memory of Mirabelle from his brain. “I’ve forgotten what I was fighting for. I’m tired. Just do the gods-damned thing.”
Hoss shouted so loud that only the bell was louder. “People of the world, behold! I now rid this terrestrial realm of very particular pest – an Angel of the Order of Arc. His destruction is your destruction. Embrace the suck!”
“Shut up and do it, you blowhard.”
Hoss smiled his Hollywood smile, showing thirty-two gleaming teeth. “My pleasure,” he said, winking, confident it would be filmed by one of his acolytes. “My fucking pleasure!”
In the backswing of the act to bash the angel man, Hoss’ championship belt loosed and fell away, inexplicably, leaving his smooth groin exposed to all. The tinny buckle clanged off an altar, bringing a singular attention to itself.
Baby Dwayne, in the form of a green-eyed monster, took center stage, snapping the sheers with which he’d cut his brother’s belt free. He then lifted a purple velvet bag above his reptilian head and hissed: “I give you Hoss Proffit, the dickless wonder of the world.” He pulled the drawstring and shook out the prize within the Crown Royal bag that Virginia had carried her memento. Upon a stone altar, the glandular contents flopped.
The crowd ceased their passions and panics long enough to view the flaccid sacrifice. As if viewing a tennis match, their eyes moved to the amputated penis, to Hoss’ smooth groin, back to the penis, then back to the groin. A collective chortle flooded the halls, rising with the smoke to the bell tower.
“You missing somethin’?” Ralph asked, pointing Fidel’s bent tip at Hoss’ clean crotch.
Hoss’ eyes synched with the crowd. Penis, groin, penis, groin. Then he broke the pattern and regarded his brother, Envy. “You did this!”
“I wish I could take credit,” Baby Dwayne said, pointing a webbed claw at Virginia. “But that dead lady did all the heavy lifting. It was her scissor. Her bag. But my idea to . . . expose you.” His slender pink tongue flicked as he laughed and laughed and laughed.
Flames licked the walls of the old church, scorching the stones. Governor Robert Gowdy swung at the end of the bell rope, losing his battle with asphyxiation. Virginia DeVine lay dying, tears of blood seeping from her eyes. The twelve-hundred odd souls that occupied God’s house jammed exits and choked thresholds.
Meanwhile, Ralph was at Hoss’ mercy, sitting on his bruised ass and broken wings, under the shadow of the man brandishing a nine-hundred pound stone statue of Saint Bernard.
It was a lady’s voice that broke the tension. It was a tinkling giggle, of one young – or at least, young at heart. It was Virginia DeVine. Somehow, her tenor twitter wafted above the din, piercing the clamor and commotion of the crowd.
Ralph and Hoss and Baby Dwayne looked at her. She lifted her head slowly, like a damaged animal. The scarlet tears course-corrected, following gravity, painting slashes of war paint on her face. “You stole my things, but you didn’t get this,” she said, her violet eyes sliding to Envy. She plucked the white feather from her bra and twirled it, as she’d done in the sacristy. “I wish,” she said groggily, “I wish . . .”
“Don’t,” Ralph said. “Don’t wish. Not unless it’s for” –
“I wish,” she continued, and blood spilled from her ears like teapots. “I wish that . . . that damn bell would stop clanging . . . and . . . and.” She sputtered up indigo blood from her purpling throat.
Ralph looked up at Hoss. It was the first time he saw confusion on his face. Confusion mixed with fear, blended with embarrassment, spiked with more fury than one man can withstand. Hoss burst, turning to his vitriol on Envy, smashing his saurian brother with the pedestal of the Saint Bernard statue.
It only took one blow. Baby Dwayne compacted like an accordion, his green head suddenly closer to his shoes than his shoulders.
Ralph did not hesitate. He swept Hoss’ ankles with his bad wing and the big man staggered backward, the weight of the statue unbalancing him. Ralph scooped a palm-full of green ichor from the crumpled smudge of Envy and shoveled it into the ark amulet. “One down,” he said.
Much too slowly, he crawled to Virginia. “Virginia,” he said, stroking her buttery-blond hair, “take it back. Wish for safety – for yourself. Wish for a long, happy life. There’s still time.”
“All I can hear is bells,” she complained. Her eyes tumbled asymmetrically. He felt her body relax, slacken. “Bells, bells, bells, bells – Bells, bells, bells. The moaning and the groaning of the bells.”
Hoss was in a rage, smashing fans and fawners, smashing Father Severino, smashing iconography and altars and anything his saintly cudgel could catch.
Samson, Ralph thought, in the temple of the Philistines, a blind and vengeful giant.
“Take it back,” Ralph said to Virginia, “save yourself. Make a wish to save yourself!”
Meanwhile, the bell tolled and Gowdy swung and the people rioted.
Hoss caught a view of the two. Their intimate tenderness insulted him. With his blood-soaked saint waving, Hoss charged. The statue had cracked and halved but was still a formidable truncheon. The giant roared and swung it at the helpless couple, intending to kill two foes with one mighty blow.
“That bell,” she whispered for the last time. “I wish that goddamned bell would stop ringing.”
It chimed, did the church bell, but its final chime – its death knell – was unlike the hundred others that evening. This chime was tinny and unmusical. This chime did not rhyme with its predecessors. To Ralph, it was the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer forging machines of torture . . . in Tartarus. A sound that shrunk his soul and sickened his spirit.
The bell rope snapped and slackened; Governor Gowdy fell to the floor, gasping. The bell ceased ringing because the bell was falling down the shaft, to earth, as if cast from heaven.
Hoss was undaunted. A crazed maniac, he swung the statue of the ruined saint toward Ralph and Virginia. As he did, the Spanish bell fell upon him, capturing him like a bug in a bell jar.
Ralph could not believe what he was seeing. He looked to Virginia to validate the impossible imagery – that of a mighty man caged inside a brass bell. However, Virginia DeVine could neither confirm nor deny. She was dead. Yet, her wish granted.
Grief, he knew, was a luxury. But it was all he wanted to do – to hold her, to assure her soaring soul that she would be treated well in the afterlife. He would see to that. He would demand that as part of his bounty.
Hoss pounded on the bell’s interior. Ralph watched as his knuckles deformed the brass, threatening to cleave Old Poncho’s hull. “There will be no bounty,” he laughed crazily, spurring himself to action. “If I don’t finish the Gods’ work, there will be no bounty.”
Ralph stood, bent but determined. He did the work for Hoss. He raised Fidel and slashed through the hull of the brass bell, creating a massive fissure.
As Hoss breached the fissure, wild and raging, Ralph impaled him, driving his faithful javelin into his prideful heart. At first, it seemed not to perturb the man. Hoss snarled and barked, spraying spittle and curses. Ralph pounded on the back of his sword hand with his free hand, hammering the spike deeper and deeper into the monster’s dark heart. Finally, like the chime of the Spanish bell, the beating ceased.
Face to face – a distance reserved for kisses and whispers – the gladiators surrendered to one another. “Almost,” Hoss breathed, relaxing, flashing a final smile.
“Maybe the most sorrowful word in man’s vocabulary,” Ralph whispered, seeming to address himself as much as Hoss Proffit. “Almost.”
The big man slumped and slid down the hull of the green patina steel. Ralph gave himself permission to look away, to witness the unending melee. He smiled his lopsided smile as he closed Pride’s eyes. The moment was resonant with deja vu. He’d caught or killed Pride a thousand million times, hadn’t he? “You created a world of hurt, Hoss. You can be proud of that. You left me here, alone, in a world of unholy hurt.”
Solemnly, Ralph placed the dead man under arrest, reciting the words like a creed. He remanded the dead fugitive into the custody of the Gods, cramming his colossal body into the small, magical box.
The deed done, he wanted to close his own eyes, sleep dreamlessly, and forget everything. If he had the Ash of Amnesia, he would roll in it, wallow in it, baptize himself in it – surrendering his memories of Virginia DeVine, of Olivia, of Hannah, of Mirabelle. It occurred to him in this painful state that all of his loves, lost and almost lost, were female. What did it mean? What did it say about him as a man, as a protector, as an Ark Angel?
He had no idea. His head hurt too much to think, to self-reflect. His heart hurt too much to give a gods’ damn.
All he knew was that California’s most vaunted commodity, the coastal sun, was quickly sinking into the Pacific Ocean, and the dying light was generating an eerie glow in the jagged remains of the stained glass windows. Simply: tomorrow was coming. Inevitably: Tomorrow was replacing today. Terrifyingly: Tomorrow was his deadline. Humanity’s deadline. Tomorrow was May 31st. There would be no May 32nd.
Ralph Chamberlain stepped over the cooling body of Virginia DeVine and headed east; headed home, to New Mexico . . . to his granddaughter, Mirabelle.
(NOT) The End
Here are the links to the other two stories:
The Ghost of Solstice Future <<link
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 2,960 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM
Pride and Joy <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 5,130 words – approx. reading time: about 19 minutes based on 265 WPM
If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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